The Dorset Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty covers over 40% of the region, and much of Inland rural Dorset particularly in the centre and west around county town Dorchester and Georgian market town Blandford Forum lies within it. In the east close to the Hampshire border and the New Forest sits Dorset’s great heathland and woodland areas rich in rare wildlife and plants, and packed with outdoor activity opportunities from treetops adventure to walking, cycling and horse riding.
Dorchester and Sturminster Newton are at the heart of Thomas Hardy Country in Dorset with a choice of trails and heritage sites relating to one of the country’s most famous authors. Many towns, villages and landscapes appear under another guise in Hardy’s novels. Charming and beautifully preserved historic market towns brimming with Grade Listed buildings are across Inland Dorset from Beaminster in the west to Sherborne and Shaftesbury in the north and Wimborne Minster in the east. Markets in these age old centres date back to the medieval era, and town and village centres are dominated by ancient abbey ruins or minster churches.
The Thomas Hardy trail is spread across Dorset, but the country town of Dorchester is very much the heart of Hardy Country. The Dorset County Museum is here with the world’s largest collection of Hardy memorabilia and artefacts including the author’s desk. Tours around the town take in places of historic interest in Hardy’s Casterbridge – his name for Dorchester in his novels. England’s largest ancient hillfort – Maiden Castle also sits just 2 miles south of the county town, and Dorchester is an ideal central Dorset base with its wide choice of museums, heritage sites, accommodation and two stations affording easy access by rail. Blandford Forum situated in a pretty wooded valley alongside the River Stour is famous for its Georgian architecture. The town is another good central Dorset base with its town museum and celebrated brewery Hall & Woodhouse, brewers of Badger Ales and Tanglefoot.
West Dorset’s market towns and villages are perfect gateways into the region’s AONB. Beautiful historic market towns like Beaminster contain hundreds of listed buildings and the landscapes are ancient too. Not to be missed is a tour of The Cerne Giant, Britain’s largest ancient chalk figure in the Cerne Abbas area which could possibly be Hercules or even a mock depiction of Oliver Cromwell. In the north west and north of Dorset are the historic market towns of Sherborne and Shaftesbury with Saxon roots and historic abbey churches and ruins. They sit close to the Somerset and Wiltshire borders and in the far north Shaftesbury and Gillingham are ideally placed for exploring the Blackmore Vale area.
The old market towns of East Dorset are brimming with historic buildings, independent shops, markets and festivals. Wimborne Minster famously has one of Dorset's best collections of heritage architecture including the great minster church dating largely from the 12th century. A wide choice of walking and cycling paths and bridleways criss-cross the area. Many villages in the centre of East Dorset end in Puddle. This is derived from their location close to the River Puiddle. The Victorians got a bit upset at all the puiddles in the area and so renamed them "puddle" to save their blushes. Between Wareham and Bere Regis is an extensive area of Forestry Commission conifer plantations. Within these runs the Sika Trail, a walking or cycling trail that takes you through forest and heathland where you might even spot a Sika or Roe deer. The cycling route is suitable for all ages and abilities.
To the east of Verwood is the vast Ringwood Forest. This is a conifer plantation that was planted over native Dorset heathland. Glades within the woodland still contain some original heathland habitat. Ringwood Forest is popular for walking, cycling and horse riding. You'll find a host of waymarked trails throughout the woodland. Within Ringwood Forest is Moors Valley Country Park. It makes a good family day out, not only for its range of recreation routes including 20 miles of waymarked walking and cycling routes, but there's also a Play Trail, a Go Ape adventure centre, a narrow gauge steam railway, golf course, a shop with bike hire available and a cafe.
The Downs around Blandford have yielded a huge array of ancient finds. South east of Blandford is Badbury Rings, an Iron Age hillfort that dates from 800 BC. It was in use until the Romans occupied it and four Bronze Age barrows indicate it was occupied even earlier. It is a seven hectare fort encircled by three concentric ramparts in the form of circular ditches each of which is forty feet high. It is believed that Badbury Rings is one of the settlements used by the Durotriges tribe who were also linked to the largest hill fort in Britain, Maiden Castle near Dorchester.
Three miles north west of Blandford Forum is Hod Hill with a large iron age hill fort, again thought to have been fortified by the Durotriges. It dates from 500 BC and archaeological investigations have revealed evidence of roundhouse huts and Roman iron ballista bolts which would have been used in battle. The prehistoric hillfort at Hambledon Hill however shows no signs of ever being subject to invasion. This lies five miles north of Blandford Forum in Blackmore Vale. The earliest sign of life was in the Neolithic period when the hill would have been wooded. Hambledon Hill is also a National Nature Reserve due to its fantastic chalk grassland.
Lawrence of Arabia came to live in the Bovington area of Dorset and you can visit the house where he lived at Clouds Hill. Just down the road is the MOD Bovington Camp where military vehicles are put through their paces. There's a public viewing area just down the road from Clouds Hill that's worth a stop. The Tank Museum which has had some famous visitors in recent times displays every shape and size of tank from World War I and II models to experimental prototypes. Moreton is where Lawrence was laid to rest after his untimely accident on the rural roads of Dorset.
No tour of Inland Dorset would be complete without a visit to the small village of Tolpuddle where events in the 19th century led to the founding of Trade Unions. The Tolpuddle Martyrs' case has never been forgotten and the Museum in the village tells their story and how their plight inspired the trade union movement in Britain. Tolpuddle also hosts the annual Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival in July.